What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Yesterday I was sitting amongst a group of people desiring to be more involved in their neighborhoods – how to better love our neighbors. I believe those sitting around the tables all had the desire to better live into what Jesus said the most important commandments in all of Scripture were. Briefly, let me give the context.

In Matthew 22:34-40 this scenario occurs:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus was the perfect example of this. He lived a life that exemplified living into these commandments wholly. As we talked about what loving our neighbors looks like practically for us, people who are not perfect by any means, a question arose:

“What does it mean to follow Jesus?” 

People went around the room and said what they thought it means. Eventually my wife gave an answer that she and I had just discussed the day before.

When it comes to Christians not wanting to seem judgmental, but still not approving of a certain “lifestyle” or action people often use the phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s one of those phrases that sounds nice, but just doesn’t work. There are a number of problems with the idea that we can truly separate the two.

My wife and I had come across a comment made on Facebook from a non-Christian summarizing what they understood Christianity was supposed to be all about. We both agreed that the person seemed to hit the nail right on the head, and decided that we probably couldn’t have said it any better ourselves. So when the time came, my wife spoke up to the group and summed it up what it means to follow Jesus by using the same words from that person on Facebook:

“Love the sinner; hate your own sin.”

 

Pride and Prejudice

I’m thankful to be a part of a church where the pastor has the courage and the faith to provoke his congregation to love. He not only teaches through the words of his sermons, but through his attitude, humility, and compassion. We have been studying the book of James over the last month or so, and this past week’s sermon dealt with James 2:1-13, which says:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Although in the context of the people James was writing to the issue was accepting a rich person with favoritism, Pastor Bill contextualized it for us by flipping it around. (I think, in part, because we, unlike the early church, are rich.) We are likely to have prejudices towards certain types of people, whether they be different ethnically, racially, economically, sexuality, theologically, or even in gender. He spent some time explaining Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink which in part discusses about our prejudices toward blacks and whites. We have prejudices than unintentionally creep up into our perceptions of people. They affect how we treat people, how we act around people, and how we think.

He gave examples of some of the prejudices he’s had to confront in his own life. He was very honest. The way he discussed his prejudices was appropriate and helpful. (And in my opinion, that’s a hard thing to do.) He talked about how he regretted that a woman answered the phone at a car mechanics because he didn’t think that a woman would know as much about car repair as a man would. He mentioned how when he hears a person with a southern accent, he for some reason assumes that they are not as intelligent as a person with a northern accent. He explained his discomfort when he first moved into Andersonville and mingled with the sizable LGBTQ community that exists there.

He’s had to confront himself about these. And he challenged us to do the same. In the church setting he explained that we shouldn’t give preferential treatment to people we agree with or have prejudice towards those we are not like. He gave the example of how charismatics and non-charismatics react toward each other. He mentioned how people feel toward those in the LGBTQ community. And it was here that I felt he was being bold, knowing that people may feel uncomfortable or that he is caving to the culture by saying that we should not judge those in the LGBTQ community, but love them.

He talked about how the church’s stance on traditional marriage hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t affect our ability to love others. He talked about what it was like to go to gay parties for the first time after moving into Andersonville. It was uncomfortable for him at first, but then he realized that these people are people. They are made in the image of God just the same as any other person. They have the same fears, issues, and goals as we all do. And then he said something that shouldn’t be ground-shaking or incredibly insightful, but in the current evangelical culture we just don’t hear it like we should.

We don’t have to agree with people to love them.

To love others doesn’t mean we agree with everything they do, believe, say, or think. But in a Christian culture that splits and splinters over minor theological and even non-theological differences, the statement is truly counter-cultural. And yes, that’s very sobering. But growing up with a father who was quick to judge others and after spending four years submersed in the Independent, Fundamentalist, KJV-only, Baptist crowd in Pensacola, Florida this was so refreshing that I found myself overcome with emotion during the service. Tears welled up.

It just shouldn’t be a profound statement within the church to say that the fact that someone is not like us shouldn’t change the fact that we should love them with the love of Jesus Christ. But right now, here in 2014 – it is.

So he challenged us to look in ourselves. What prejudices do we have — even unintentionally? We must learn to confront those prejudices and overcome them by loving all people. If we are blind to our own prejudices, then we should make an intentional effort to love all people well. We must determine to love others better.

If we judge people, James explains that we can expect to be judged in the same manner that we judge others. Mercy is better than judgment. I believe it is better to be quick to love others and give mercy than it is to judge others. As I have said before, it is better to err in love than it is to err in haste judgement. We should love others the way we want God to love us.

Jesus was pretty clear about this as well in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In the Lord’s prayer, something many people have memorized, there is this statement:

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

That’s a dangerous thing to pray to God for someone who is not very forgiving.

Jesus also says this later in his sermon:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

It seems pretty clear. James says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Our daily challenge to ourselves should be to be loving others better, resisting judgment. The judgments that we should be making are those of our own hearts. That’s a hard thing to do, though. It’s a scary thing to do. It’s a lot easier to just compare ourselves to others or to judge others whom we deem as worse than ourselves. We should pray that very vulnerable and dangerous prayer that David prayed to God in Psalm 139:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.”

And then we should ask for the mercy we need as David did in Psalm 51:

“Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.”

To do this requires vulnerability before God, it requires us to be honest with ourselves, and both of vulnerability and honesty require humility. Pride is what leads us to judge, to be unforgiving, to not have mercy. We can’t be prideful and truly love well. So maybe we should start by praying for the ability to humble ourselves before others and before God.

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness.

I was contemplating this morning on a number of things revolving around violence and the flippancy we treat the lives of those around us. This happened after a brief back and forth with someone on Facebook regarding capital punishment (according to the Bible) and I was a bit flustered. Anytime I have Facebook banter with someone my emotions rise and my blood pressure probably goes up. I realize this has something to do with not wanting to get into a debate on Facebook because it never really goes anywhere. Forums and Facebook never seem to be a place where people actually change their deep rooted beliefs or values based on some comment someone made. Also, it’s a public debate. It just encourages others to get involved.

The only reason I commented today is because I have committed myself to calling out my friends when they flippantly talk about violence, the lives of human beings, or marriage. This is especially true of my Christian friends, and especially true of my very vocal Christian friends. If you talk about loving people and post Bible verses all the time, then you shouldn’t be flippant about things that should be taken very seriously.

Anyway, while he believes, as many do, that it is God’s will that the government kill those “who have given up their right to live” because they have “killed a life they didn’t create,” I argued for mercy and forgiveness.

Forgiveness and mercy is not the natural human response. Forgiveness, in our minds, negates justice. But for a Christian to seek out death for another human being instead of forgiveness seems ignore what makes the “good news” so good. Of course that doesn’t mean we do not live with the consequences of our actions. I just do not believe that death is the necessary means of punishment. That’s core to what we believe as Christians. Does a murderer deserve death? Yes. But that death has already been paid. Once. For ALL. Because we ALL deserve death.

So as Christians, it’s ok to go marching around saying that someone deserves death, as long as that person is also pointing to themselves, and then explains that they have already been forgiven.

And that is what makes forgiveness so powerful. When we forgive, we are imitating God. It’s not natural for us. That is why I like the quote from Alexander Pope, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

I also love the quote,

“We are most like beasts when we kill, most like men when we judge, most like God when we forgive.”

There’s already enough death in this world.There’s already enough injustice. People are shot to death when they are just trying to find help. The world doesn’t need more death and killing. The world needs more mercy and forgiveness. Because ironically, true justice and life is found in the greatest unjust death that has ever occurred: that God died for all mankind and through Him any human being can have eternal life. That’s the Gospel.

Forgiveness brings and breeds justice.

 

Living in Ambiguity.

I think we stay away from conversations that make us uncomfortable because we don’t want to change. Ultimately, I think deep down we are all afraid of change. And at the end of the day if we’re honest with ourselves, not every day, but every once in a while, we think that horrible thought, What if I’m wrong about everything?

What we believe about God, the universe, the goodness within mankind (or lack thereof), and our future hope is what determines how we live our lives. As we grow up our family, friends, schools, community, culture, churches, books, experiences, society, chemical balances within our brain and body, and everything else we are exposed to affects the framework by which we determine how to live. We spend our entire lives building a framework of values and of beliefs. Most of those are built up at a very young age. The foundation is at least.

Something I’ve learned over these past few years is that as the circle of people and experiences one is exposed to expands, his or her own worldview expands. Same with their values. And with their love and respect. It’s easy to condemn something you don’t know, understand, or haven’t experienced. But it’s amazing how hard it is to condemn something when that something becomes a someone. Or multiple someones. Communities. Populations.

This is true for minorities. For those struggling in this country. It is easy to commentate on immigration. To bash those who break the law by coming into this country illegally. And it’s easy to condemn those who help those who do. So people try to write laws to prevent this from happening.

It makes sense. What do they think they are doing? How can they think that it ok to do that? They are stealing jobs from rightful citizens of this country. Right?

But then by accident you are flipping through the stations on the radio and you land on NPR and you hear a story on Latino USA about how the waiting period to legally immigrate to the U.S. through a family member who has become a citizen is now almost 20 years.

And that was just by accident. You didn’t even mean to hear that. Your world blows up a bit when you actually intentionally meet illegal immigrants or hear their stories.

This is true for the poor. For those struggling in this country. It is easy to commentate on poverty. To bash those who take checks from the government. It’s easy to condemn those who abuse the system. So people try to write laws to prevent this from happening.

It makes sense. Why can’t they just get jobs? If they just applied themselves they could stop taking advantage of normal hard-working tax payers. They have motivation to eat enough to get fat, why can’t they motivate themselves to go get jobs? Right?

But then you help out at a community center in the city which helps the homeless, and the under-resourced, and simple poor families. And you hear their stories. You hear about the true injustices and disadvantages that they experience. You realize that the reason they are overweight is because the cheapest food is the unhealthiest food. And even if they did want to eat fresh fruits and veggies, well, they are nowhere to be found. No grocery stores. They are miles away. (And that’s barely the tip of the iceberg.)

You see and hear their stories. You experience their reality, if only for a week when you were simply wanting to help out at a community center.

This is true for the LGBT community. For those who feel harassed in this country. Unequal. It is easy to commentate on homosexuality. To bash those who aren’t “normal.” It’s easy to condemn those who want to support same-sex marriage. So people try to write laws to prevent this from happening.

It makes sense. Homosexuality isn’t natural. How can they think it is ok to do that? They must have not been raised right. They clearly have rejected God. Right?

But then you go to dinner with a group of individuals who identify within the LGBT community AND within the Christian community. You meet a Christian gay man who recently came out to his wife. A Christian bisexual woman who is happily married to a straight man. A whole group of people who love Jesus, believe the Bible, and identify within the LGBT community. People who want to just do what is right.

You hear their stories. You get a glimpse of their reality – their struggles. And you are simply eating dinner with some people who are part of the LGBT community.

I could go on. For me, this is my story. I have decided to refuse to comment definitively about any group of people, especially without hearing their stories or getting glimpses of their realities. That’s one of the major injustices in this world. The people who make the decisions, who have the power, are often the ones who have not heard the stories or experienced the realities of the people whom their decisions affect directly and deeply. Or they just don’t care. Many times the people in power are the ones who think they have the best answers to the perceived problems that exist. They rarely take the time to listen. They rarely ask for solutions from the people experiencing the problems, which is unfortunate because the people who experience the problems, the injustices, are usually the ones that have the best solutions.

We just don’t care enough. Listening takes time. It takes humility. And what does power have to do with humility? More often than not, hearing the experiences and realities of people not like yourself challenges your values, your worldview, your understanding of, well, everything.

And that is scary. That does not make me feel good (or well…). It might keep me up a bit at night if I think too much about it. It might mean that I can’t have definitive answers. It makes life more ambiguous. No one wants to live in ambiguity. We want to have things figured out.

That’s where I’m at right now. Ambiguity.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say I’m living in doubt or forsaking my values or worldview. I’m just allowing them to be challenged. Maybe I don’t have things as figured out as I once thought.

When I realize that I’m not desperately and defensively holding onto things I thought to be true, which might not be as sure as I once thought, I realize that I am just being honest – to myself, and before God and others.

That’s how I want to live. Honestly.

Even if it means living in ambiguity.

Selected Quotes from “On Mercy and Justice”

Selected Quotes from “On Mercy and Justice”

he following text, often attributed to St. Basil the Great, is now regarded by some scholars as the work of one of Basil’s followers. This translation is the work of C. Paul Schroeder and is included in his collection of St. Basil’s writings On Social Justice.

“The world that forgets God, brothers and sisters, is ruled by injustice toward neighbors and inhumanity toward the weak.”

“Just as the Prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, taught, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good.” (Is 1:16-17) The Mosaic Law also contained many commandments regarding not harming one’s neighbor, as well as many precepts enjoining kindness and mercy. If someone abandons the practice of the one, the other will not suffice for that person’s restoration. Acts of charity made from unjust gains are not acceptable to God, nor are those who refrain from injustice praiseworthy if they do not share what they have. It is written concerning those who commit injustice and then attempt to offer gifts to God, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.” (Prov 15:8) With regard to those who fail to show mercy, however, it says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” (Prov 21:13)

It is for this reason that Proverbs instructs, “Honor the Lord with your just labors, and offer as first fruits your righteous works.” (Prov 3:9 LXX) But if you plan to make an offering to God out of the fruits of injustice and exploitation, you should know that it would be better for you neither to possess such things nor to make any offering from them. A pure gift gives wings to prayer; as it is written, “The prayers of the upright are acceptable to God.” (Prov 3:9 LXX) Conversely, if you possess what you have as a result of just labor, yet make no offerings to God for the support of the poor, exploitation is reckoned against you, according to what was spoken by the prophet Malachi, “The first fruits and tithes remain in your possession, and the gains of exploitation shall be in your house.” (Mal 3:8, 10 LXX)”

“It is therefore necessary for you to blend mercy and justice, possessing with justice and dispensing with mercy, according to what is written, “Preserve mercy and justice, and ever draw near to God.” (Hos 12:6 LXX) God loves mercy and justice; therefore, the one who practices mercy and justice draws near to God. It follows that every person should make a thorough self-examination. The rich should carefully consider their means, from which they intend to make offerings, in order to make certain that they have not wielded power over the poor, or used force against the weak, or committed extortion against those in a subordinate position.”

“Mercy does not come from injustice, nor blessing from a curse, nor goodness from tears. God says to those who cause the tears of the oppressed, “What I hate, you do; you cover my altar with tears, weeping and groaning.” (Mal 2:13 LXX) Show mercy from your own earnings, and not from injustice; do not even think of bringing unjust gains to God under the pretext of showing mercy. Such displays are empty glory.”

“This is the reason we perform works of mercy: in order to receive back mercy from God. God gives back to those he approves, and he approves no greedy person. Gifts offered to God are no gifts at all if in acquiring them you have made your brother or sister sorrowful. The Lord says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Lk 19:9)”

“If such commands were given to those under the Law, what shall we say of those who are in Christ? To them the Lord says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20) For this reason, the Apostle exhorts us to give to those who have nothing not only out of our crops and produce, but also from the works of our hands. “Do good work with your hands, so that you may have something to give to those in need.” (Eph 4:28)”

“These things should be a constant reminder to us; we should place them before the very eyes of our soul, so that we may not neglect the opportune moment, nor pass over the present time, waiting for some other chance, lest we should be lost in the end on account of our hesitation and delaying. May the Lord grant that we may be found fruitful and vigilant, mindful of his commands, ready and unimpeded at his glorious appearing; in Christ himself our God, to whom be glory, might, and honor, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always, and forever and ever.”

Selected Quotes from “On Mercy and Justice” on my Tumblr page